Jane Addams and her meeting with Leo Tolstoy

Jane Addams has long been one of my heroes.  The woman had guts and grit. She took a while to find herself, but find herself she did, and she did it in an era when women were expected, when women were all but required to pass their lives barefoot and pregnant tending to hearth and home.

Miss Jane was born in Cedarville, Illinois on September 6, 1860. To help with time reference, the Civil war was fought from 1861 until 1865. Her mother died when Jane was very young, so she was mostly raised by her father. Jane and her dad had a very close relationship, and he saw to it that she was well educated, which was pretty ground breaking at the time. So, Jane finished college, and then stood there looking into the future and trying to envision her life and she drew a blank. For lots of reasons including health, she sank into a malaise – today we would probably call it depression. Fortunately for her, Jane was the daughter whose father had some means, so she was able to take a couple of trips to Europe and England.

While she was in England on her second trip she visited Toynbee Hall, which was a community of young people committed to helping the poor of London by living among them. She was inspired by what she saw, by the effect of their social reform efforts. So, home she came, she connected with her friend Ellen Starr Gates, and in September of 1889, together they started Hull House, a settlement house in Chicago. Now, it two sentences I have summed up years of work, some of it stumbling and bumbling. But, the outcomes were quite amazing.  Hull House initiated a little theater, a juvenile court, and labor organizations; worked for child labor laws, sponsored adult education courses, cultural exchange groups, and an endless list of progressive initiatives.  Hull House became a haven for independent women of fierce creativity and initiative. Many of the women were single, quite a few of them lived in committed relationships with other women. It is fairly well documented that Jane Addams and Mary Rozet Smith sustained a long term committed relationship.

So all of that is background for who Jane Addams was and the work that she did. But one of my favorite stories about Jane Addams is related to one of her heroes, Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy was a writer and an activist in Russia.  He profoundly advocated solidarity with the common laborer.  In 1896, just about 7 years after she founded Hull House, Jane was recovering from typhoid, and so took a bit of a vacation to Europe with Mary Rozet Smith. While they were there they traveled to see Tolstoy. Story has it that Tolstoy came in from working in the fields, wiped his hands in a towel, took one look at the pair of women who were dressed in the style of the time in long dresses with billowing sleeves, and he said, “Madame I was told you were a reformer who worked with the poor, but the fabric on one arm of your dress would generously make an entire frock for a girl!” Jane was taken aback, but stood her ground. They talked for a while longer, and then Tolstoy learned that part of the funding for Hull House came from Jane Addams estate which included a working farm. Tolstoy then bellowed something like, “So you are an absentee landlord? Do you think you are helping the people more by adding yourself to the crowded city than you would by tilling your own soil?”

A bit taken shaken by the encounter, Jane and Mary left their interview with Tolstoy and continued their trip with the luster of her hero tarnished and with Jane questioning her own confidence and her approach to working at Hull House. When she returned to Chicago she began working in the Hull House bakery. But, by the time her hours at the bakery were done, there would be lines of people waiting to see her, piles of letters waiting to be answered, and human needs and wants waiting. So she decided that saving her soul by baking bread did not justify setting aside the need of real human beings. Rather she saw the value of compassionate and caring leadership.

Was Jane Addams extravagant in her dress? Was Tolstoy self-indulgent in his labor? Time and place matter. The lessons that I take from all of this include the importance of finding your own passions and working to nurture them, and the importance of open, honest, ongoing self-awareness and self-criticism, and the importance of a wide circle of friends whose ideas differ from your own, and who will speak the truth of their hearts to you.

Just to bring things to their proper conclusion, Hull House was not Jane Addams only significant engagement or contribution. She was also a major figure in work for peace in her era. Her peace work was initially strongly criticized, but ultimately she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. She spent the last years of her life working for world peace and an end to racism. Addams died of cancer on May 21, 1935, may she rest in the peace for which she so tenaciously labored.


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